This week’s Family Night began with its usual trepidation and ended with us wearing the restaurant’s promotional polo shirts, jumping up and down in our own little mosh pit and singing “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi with the karaoke microphones.
In our ongoing quest to find a neighborhood joint we can call “our place,” we once again strayed from the familiar, safe comfort food of Vientiane’s western-style restaurants. A few other friends (whom we refer to as the out-of-town cousins à la the Griswolds and Cousin Eddie) joined us for the evening. Carol wouldn’t tell us where we were going, so we all met at our house and car-pooled. Well, there was just one car, so some of us crammed in the car; the others followed on motorbikes.
Carol’s eatery du jour was just off Khouvieng Road, a main artery that runs from our neck of the woods all the way to downtown. We pulled in to Khouvieng Country’s parking area, and the owner immediately came running out. He enthusiastically pumped Carol’s hand, saying, “Hello! I remember you!” She gently pointed out that they’d never met.
Our attention swiftly turned to the karaoke system, which was belting out “I Can’t Live” by Mariah Carey. Before we could set down our bags, Nikki was already at the front, mic in hand with a small but adoring Lao audience singing along. Her biggest fan, a tipsy Lao man who was friends with the owner, hovered at our table for much of the night, buying us beers and cheering for us to take the stage.
The restaurant’s décor was typical – lots of wood, garish fake flowers, twinkly lights, murals of traditional Lao landscapes, shiny colorful knick-knacks, etc. Unique features included battery-operated tea lights on the tables and a thatched roof overhanging the stage to create the illusion of a “sala,” the open-air little huts that dot the countryside. The staff was friendly and attentive, clearly amused by us.
Deterred only momentarily by the all-Lao menu (none of us could read Lao script well enough to decipher it), Carol gave her usual instructions to the friendly owner: Bring us your five best dishes, preferably with no faces, bones or organs. Those turned out to be a green salad, spicy papaya salad, fried rice, barbecued chicken, and tom yam soup. The fried rice was some of the best I’ve had, with shrimp and chunks of some other savory meat I couldn’t identify. The chicken was also tasty, although the “no bones” request was blatantly ignored.
We were all a bit disappointed in the papaya salad, a local specialty that inspires a brutal sense of competition among Lao women, who all think they make it better than anyone else. Once you’ve tried homemade papaya salad prepared by a lady with something to prove, you’re bound to be let down by restaurant fare.
Anyway, it was hard to focus on the food when the guy running the karaoke system was clearly creating a song list tailor-made for the crazy expat crowd. We sounded terrible, but the Lao restaurant patrons wore huge smiles, waved their arms in the air, clapped and sang, sometimes actually getting up from their tables to deliver a microphone and push us toward the stage.
What could be more fun than eating and singing with your friends? Eating and singing in matching shirts! The restaurant owner brought out a pile of promotional polo shirts and passed them around. “Free! Free!” he said, handing out extras. “For your friends!” Tony’s first shirt was skin tight, which was awesome, but the kind owner heard our laughter and brought out a larger size.
The shirts were like superhero costumes. Suddenly, we all thought we were rock stars, and there was no getting us off the stage. Looking at the photos, I realize now we looked like the Partridge Family.
At one point, Carol and I pulled an older Lao lady away from her table and made her dance with us. She was a good sport and moved her mouth randomly to suggest she knew the words. There weren’t many people at the restaurant, but everyone seemed to enjoy our ridiculous display of misplaced confidence.
When we wrapped up our Bon Jovi finale, we filed out the door, waving and thanking everyone as if they had paid to see us. Best Family Night ever! Nikki says it was even the most fun she’s had in Laos so far. Khouvieng Country will be hard to top.
Here are a few more shots from our Khouvieng Country concert.